The village of Ironbridge is located on the banks of the river Severn in the heart of the Ironbridge Gorge. The town takes its name from the famous bridge which grew up next to it. The town and surrounding area are often said to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. This is because the first Abraham Darby perfected technique of smelting iron with coke in Coalbrookdale which enabled the production of iron to be much cheaper and more efficient than previously. This led to local engineers and architects solving a long standing problem of crossing the river. Prior to the building of the bridge it was only possible to cross the river by ferry which wasn’t reliable enough for the growth of industries in the area.
In 1773, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard wrote to a local ironmaster, John Wilkinson of Broseley, to suggest building a bridge out of cast iron. By 1775, Pritchard had finalised the plans, but he died in December 1777, only a month after work had begun.
Abraham Darby III, who was the grandson of the first foundry owner and an ironmaster working at Coalbrookdale in the gorge, was commissioned to cast and build the bridge. The iron for the new bridge was cast at his foundry.
Construction of the cast iron bridge began in 1779 and the bridge was finally opened on New Year’s day in 1781. It is the first arch bridge in the world to be constructed solely out of cast iron. The bridge span is 100 feet and it rises 60 feet above the river. Each part of the frame was cast separately and was based on carpentry techniques such as mortise and tenon and blind dovetail joints. At the crown of the arch bolts were used to fasten the half-ribs together. In all 378 tons of iron were used and the cost was just over £6000. At one end of the bridge a toll house was built. Today fixed to the outside is a board that displays the old toll tariffs; it is one of the many museums celebrating the history of the Ironbridge Gorge.
Shortly after its construction, cracks appeared in the masonry abutments. This was partly due to ground movements which necessitated remedial work and partly due to flaws in the manufacture. In more recent times, shifting of the river banks had caused the centre of the arch to raise several feet and a Ferro-concrete counter-arch was constructed under the river to stop further movement.
The proprietors of the Ironbridge also built the Tontine Hotel in order to accommodate the numerous visitors to the bridge and other sites within the surrounding area. The hotel is still there to this day.
The village of Ironbridge fell into decline by the 19th century but in 1986 the Bridge along with the surrounding Ironbridge Gorge area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Ironbridge Gorge Museums are now a major tourist attraction.
A full view of the famous Iron Bridge can be viewed here.